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America’s Nastiest Blood Feud

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Bettmann/Corbis
Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson after Johnson’s address to Congress following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 1963

Bobby bought the lie. His explanation of his brother’s quandary recalled his own earlier effort to avoid an unwanted handshake. Jack was quoted as saying, “I just held it [his hand] out like this,” putting his hand two or three inches from his pocket, “and he grabbed at it.” Bobby’s version became Camelot orthodoxy, explaining why the king had an evil troll in his entourage. Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen etched it in historical accounts. They seem not to have considered the implausibility of the story—that the man they praised for resourcefulness and toughness (enough to deal with Khrushchev) had let a piratical buccaneer come swarming aboard his beautiful galleon, armed with no cutlass sharper than a handshake.

It is hard to ferret out truth in the sentimental mists wreathing Camelot, but Caro destroys the authorized version with some simple facts. Johnson, too, had loyalists who did not understand why he would give up his power in the Senate—principally his beloved mentor, the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. When Kennedy asked him to be his running mate, Johnson said he had one condition—Kennedy would have to persuade Rayburn to accept the deal, and Kennedy went straight to Rayburn’s hotel suite and used all his charm to get that agreement. Does that look like the action of man trapped with an unwanted partner?

Bobby tried repeatedly to save his brother from a situation he thought he did not desire, going repeatedly to Johnson’s suite to beg him to withdraw. He said there would be an awful floor fight if Johnson accepted, and said he was authorized to make a counteroffer—Lyndon could be head of the Democratic National Committee instead of vice-president. For three hours he played out this farce, not knowing it was a farce. He even tried to persuade Rayburn to make Johnson withdraw. A puzzled Rayburn telephoned Jack and asked if he had actually changed his mind after begging him to support a Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Jack answered, “Oh, that’s all right; Bobby’s been out of touch and doesn’t know what’s been happening.” When an infuriated Bobby had at last to submit to an arrangement he would never understand, he told a friend, “Yesterday [when Jack won the nomination] was the best day of my life, and today [when Johnson joined him] is the worst day of my life.”

Why did Jack Kennedy let his liberal followers swallow Bobby’s anguished version of what had happened? Why did these otherwise sophisticated thinkers accept such an implausible tale of his defeat by a scheming Lyndon? It is because the emotions of Bobby had percolated through the campaign, and hate is a great magnifier of its object. During the cold war, for instance, Americans hated communism so much that they thought every Russian was a threat. In the same way, Camelotians saw Johnson as a fearsome menace who could dominate even their beloved Jack.

This set a terrible tone for the coming administration. Kennedy’s closest followers felt they had a monster in their midst, and they must do everything in their power to contain him before he sneaked up toward another paralyzing handshake with their leader. Johnson, knowing their attitude and where it came from, responded in kind, since hatred creates a mirroring image in the hated. Referring to Bobby in a conversation with a friend, Johnson said, “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.”

Dallas

Knowing that he would have many disadvantages in a Kennedy administration, Johnson attempted two preemptive moves at the very outset. But these power lunges just confirmed the Kennedyites’ view of him as a crude intruder. First, he tried to retain some of his Senate power. Since the vice-president presides (when he wishes) over the Senate, he asked to preside over his old power base as well, the Democratic caucus in that chamber—but he was rebuffed by his old buddies, who knew this would unconscionably blur the separation of powers. He also tried to work the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, requesting an office in the White House with a bulked-up staff for military and security issues. He was trying, we now see, to have the parallel presidency that Dick Cheney secured for himself under a compliant George Bush. Instead, he was consigned to an office in the Executive Office Building, without the extended staff he had requested.

After his failure to adjust the game to his own rules, Johnson made a bid for pity by presenting himself as the powerless butt of Camelot jokes (which he was). He moaned that he was “a cut dog.” He rarely challenged those around him, and when he did (as when he considered Bobby’s response to the Cuban missiles too weak), he was excluded from the secret decisions made on the crisis. He feared, rightly, that the Kennedy team was determined to push him off the ticket in 1964. Their detestation for Johnson, with their constant mocking of him, was so obvious that the president tried to damp down the fires, telling his appointments secretary, Ken O’Donnell, “You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.”

But that availed little, and Caro says the president himself was beginning to see he would not need Johnson in 1964. Johnson could not even contain a disruptive party battle in his home state of Texas, between liberal Ralph Yarborough and Johnson’s old ally, now the state’s governor, John Connally. On the fatal Texas trip with Kennedy in November, Yarborough even refused to ride in the assigned convertible car with Johnson, prompting a Dallas News headline, YARBOROUGH SNUBS LBJ.

Still, Yarborough was the least of Johnson’s troubles by this time. Two other events ensured that Kennedy would not, in fact could not, have run again with Johnson. An intrepid investigator, Senator John J. Williams of Delaware, had begun to reveal the financial and sexual scandals of Johnson’s longtime Senate sidekick, Bobby Baker. That investigation would reveal Johnson’s intimate involvement in Baker’s misdeeds.

Moreover, Life magazine was assembling a large investigative team to get to the bottom of Johnson’s mysterious finances—how, receiving just government pay over the years, he had become a multimillionaire with the help of Texas oil buddies. Both those time bombs were furiously ticking as Johnson and Kennedy took off for their five-city tour of Texas. In fact, at the very time when the shots were fired at Kennedy in Dallas, a House committee was hearing testimony on the Baker affair and the Life team was meeting to map its strategy. Johnson’s whole future was rescued by the bullets that killed Kennedy. Unable to attack a new president in a time of crisis, Life abandoned its search into his records and the House contained the Johnson aspects of its Baker probe.

From the minute, at the Dallas hospital, when he received confirmation that Kennedy was dead, Johnson was all decisiveness. Advised to hurry back to Washington, since there might be more conspiratorial action against the government, he overrode that advice, declaring that he would not leave until Kennedy’s body was released, so it and Mrs. Kennedy could ride with him on Air Force One back to Washington. He wanted to be sworn in on the plane before he left Dallas, with his old friend Judge Sarah Hughes administering the oath of office. Legally, he did not need the oath—he succeeded Kennedy as president the moment he died—but he felt it would give visual force to the legitimacy of his succession.

Then, on the plane, he performed what must be one of the most mysterious actions of his life. He called Bobby in Washington. Why? Not to console him—which, coming from him, would have been grotesque. Not to gloat—even Johnson was not monstrous enough to do that in the anguished moment when Bobby first learned the dreadful news. Not to try to put their relations on a new basis—something that, if it were ever possible, could not be done then of all times. He invented an excuse—he wanted to know the procedure for his swearing-in—but that was information he could have got from many sources. Bobby in fact had to get it from his Justice Department associate, Nicholas Katzenbach, who later said, “Calling Bobby was really wrong.” Even Johnson’s loyal secretary Marie Fehmer, who was told to take down the phone conversation, would remember, “I kept thinking, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.’”

Was Johnson in effect “clearing” his decision to go ahead with the swearing-in, lest Bobby should later claim he had not known of it and would have disapproved of it? If so, that too was a futile effort. Bobby later bitterly attacked Johnson’s impatience to claim the office publicly—and especially his use of Jackie Kennedy by his side to show he was heir to the Kennedy mystique. Johnson could not rationally have expected his call to pacify, or think it would not provoke. Then why did he do it? Hate goes automatically, as to a magnet, toward the hated object. Bobby filled Lyndon’s mind, even at this most terrible hour, and he always thought of himself as caught in a deadly dance partnership with him. For reasons he probably did not understand himself, he could not not call his foe at this most testing moment in his life. It was as unthinking as a tongue’s compulsive return and return to a rotten tooth.

When Air Force One landed in Washington, Bobby not only rushed onto it past the president, but guided the casket and Mrs. Kennedy onto the mobile hydraulic lift that had been rolled up to take the casket at the plane’s back door, where he descended without waiting for Johnson to step onto the lift’s platform. The president of the United States was left stranded in the open door of the airplane, unable for a while to get to the ground in his own capital city.

That began a series of encounters that made Johnson conclude that Bobby “seriously considered whether he would let me be president.” Bobby delayed Johnson’s occupation of the Oval Office, his move into the White House, and his address to Congress (planned for one day after Kennedy’s funeral), all in the name of Mrs. Kennedy’s grief. He came late to the new president’s first cabinet meeting, at which he was making a plea that Kennedy staffers stay on with him in this volatile period.

Bobby was putting off as long as he could any acknowledgment that Johnson was the president—and he would never, in the future, refer to him as such. Johnson’s usurpation of office had begun, in Bobby’s eyes, when he forced his unwanted way onto the ticket in Los Angeles, making all his subsequent acts illegitimate.

Johnson badly needed continuity with the previous administration. Knowing the hostility of most in the former president’s inner circle, he abased himself to them, flattered them as more talented than he was, professed his absolute need of their assistance. This made some of them remain from a sense of patriotic duty. Others despised the weepy fawning used on them. The three S’s (Schlesinger, Sorensen, Salinger) stayed just long enough to keep their departure from looking like an obvious insult. The big question is: What made Bobby stay on as attorney general? Perhaps he wanted to see what he could do to prevent Johnson from trashing the Kennedy heritage. He may have wanted to make Johnson uncomfortable. Jackie Kennedy had refused to take off the dress stained with her husband’s blood for the swearing-in photos. She said, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” Perhaps Bobby believed his very presence would brand Johnson for the usurper he was.

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